Like in Egypt, Israel's Army Takes on Powers It Shouldn't Have

The Israeli army may not fire on its own citizens, but it wields just as much power over them nonetheless.

There are many pearls of wisdom in the newspaper, and they're actually hidden far from the headlines. Take, for example, notices of public tenders being issued by the Defense Ministry to supply a variety of items. The notices contain a wealth of useful information that provides an insight into our society. Last week a public tender was issued inviting bids for the supply of "shaped schnitzel." Was the reference to teddy bear-shaped chicken nuggets that would remind soldiers of a childhood cut short by a summer of military training? Maybe the reference is to weapon-shaped schnitzel or maybe it's only those with status in military units who are served it, while everyone else has to eat standard schnitzel.

Schnitzel is the Israeli national food that went through a brutal melting pot when it took leave of those refined Ashkenazi Jewish kitchens in Europe and landed in Israeli sandwich stands next to Iraqi-style sabich — a sandwich with fried eggplant and hard-boiled egg — and Tunisian sandwiches, in a baguette of course. And from there schnitzel hit rock-bottom — the kitchen of the Israel Defense Forces. On the other hand, shaped schnitzel can serve as a status symbol: If you're a pilot, a Golani combat soldier or paratrooper, you have "shaped" for lunch.

The Intelligence Corps is seeking bids on pillows made of leather-like fabric, which again prompts one to wonder: Doesn't the Intelligence Corps deserve real leather pillows? Isn't that fake leather, which might remind one of liver-flavored eggplant, evidence of deeper deception or discrimination based on status? And then who gets leather pillows made of leather?

All of these pale, however, by comparison to the tender inviting bids for providing classes on the subject of Israeli-Jewish identity. The deadline for submission of bids, by the way, is September 9. It's doubtful, however, that there is an institution that can put together a detailed plan and submit it within three weeks about such an identity, but who am I to even suggest that the bidding process might have been rigged?

So Israeli-Jewish identity is a commodity available for purchase from the lowest bidder. What 12 years of school didn't do will be accomplished in a course. Imparting Israeli-Jewish identity is not a new IDF perk. It has existed for years, but it repeatedly raises the issue of why the army is involved in shaping Israeli society. Just as the issue of who "bears the burden" in Israeli society is viewed only in military terms — meaning who serves in the army — and just as some rights and social welfare benefits accorded to citizens are conditioned on military service, so the army is accorded the authority to grant recognition to citizens' Israeliness and even obscure the identity of non-Jewish soldiers.

The cultural and societal power that the army possesses prompts an immediate comparison with what is happening now in Egypt. The Egyptian army has revered status and by law it cannot be found at fault. Its budget is not a matter of public knowledge and is not subject to oversight. It manages its own independent financial system the size of which no one knows. And all of a sudden, and not for the first time, the Egyptian army has taken control, and in the name of "the people and democracy" is fighting a religious movement that was democratically elected. Egyptian liberals are kneeling before Egypt military leader Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, viewing him as the guardian of liberty and liberal values even when he kills hundreds of civilians.

But what the Egyptian army is doing, in brutal fashion, is not just a show of force to demonstrators meant to restore stability. It decides what the correct values are and what is out-of-bounds. It defines the boundaries of tolerable democracy and dictates when that democracy needs to protect itself and against whom. It is also overseeing the process of drafting a new constitution that will shape Egypt's future values and reinvent the "will of the people." There can be no better definition of dictatorship than the forceful takeover of public awareness.

One cannot help but wonder if there is a substantive difference between a military takeover of awareness the shaping of identity on one hand, and voluntary devotion to an army and a willingness to give it authority over these fundamental issues. In both cases, that in Egypt and that in Israel, an organization that is not democratic is taking or receiving powers unto itself that it is not supposed to have. In contrast with the Egyptian army, the Israeli army does not fire at its civilian population. It simply molds them into "shaped citizens."